According to a study published by Policy Research Corporation in 2008, Malta employs 7,600 people in the traditional maritime sectors, 11,000 people in coastal and sea-related recreational and tourism sectors and 1,400 in fisheries.

These three areas make up for 20,000 jobs out of a working population of 190,000, which represents 10.5 per cent of Malta’s workforce.

If Malta has one infinite resource, this is the sea and, if managed with prudence and wisdom, it is bound to continue generating livelihood for a substantial percentage of the Maltese population and, even then, at an incremental rate.

The pity is that although Malta is, by its very own geographical definition, a maritime nation, with various administrations including its promotion as a maritime centre in their policies, it has not always been the case that due attention and focus were given to this sector.

Rather, maritime careers do not rank high as do other industries. This lack of awareness and appreciation of the maritime industry is manifest in two areas, namely the absence of in-depth professional studies to define the effective contribution of the industry to the economy and the lack of appropriate degree courses at university level.

On a more optimistic note, there seems to be a growing awareness both at political and industry levels to harness the potential of the sector and turn it into an economic motor that can only produce multiplier effects, given the span and extent of the industry segments.

As is unfortunately often the case within this industry, Malta lags behind when compared to other European countries which have had clear visions and focused to bring together the various maritime sectors, thereby creating meaningful clusters which are today well established, leading components of the maritime industry and powerful policy instruments that lead to the generation of economic wealth.

In a study published by the European Commission in 2008, it was stated that “the maritime industries throughout Europe contribute to the well-being of all Europeans… the majority of the external trade of the European Union is transported by sea. The seas around Europe also provide a rich source of conventional and renewable energy generation. Europe’s coastal regions are home to maritime industrial activities such as ship building and among the world’s top destination for tourists”.

Malta needs not spend efforts and funds to reinvent wheels. We can follow on the success of other European countries and adjust for the realities of our uniqueness

Such a statement immediately brings to the fore the wide diversity of economic activity generated through the maritime industry. Maritime clusters are useful platforms for the involvement of all stakeholders and proof of this can be found in European countries such as France, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

Our island mentality makes us introspective, therefore lacking a view of the wider picture. The fear of sharing information with competitors hinders innovation and development. There is also too much fragmentation within this industry which, within a European context, is too small to take any advantage emanating from economies of scale.

Paradoxically, it is because of this reality that Malta needs to cluster all segments of the maritime industry. Our small size and relatively limited turnover at industry level are at times precluding us from participating in EU tenders.

Taking the cue from European success stories in maritime clustering, one can find, as in the case of the French maritime cluster, that there are no fewer than 42 cross-sector groupings which include shipping and maritime transport; maritime services (ports and ports services); port terminals; ship management companies; shipbrokers; classification societies; maritime consultants; the banking sector; law firms and insurance brokers.

The interaction of these groups is the dynamic to improve and innovate. In France, the maritime cluster has been refined to such a level that all governments, irrespective of political creed, consider it as a partner in development. Continuous consultation and interaction ensure a win-win situation both for the government and industry. It structures the consultation and perpetuates inclusivity.

The EU itself has recognised the importance of maritime clusters. As a matter of fact, it has gathered the existing clusters into a confederation under the European Network of Maritime Clusters. The aim of this confederation is to translate national aims into European common targets. Although each national cluster varies, the common denominator is the foundation that rests on three pillars: the public sector, private companies and research/academic community.

Without falling into negative inertia when analysing the local situation, one cannot but conclude that we are still lacking in this sector. Viewed differently, the establishment of a Malta maritime cluster is most interesting and promising because it is the future.

The way forward calls for extensive consultation, not for the sake of generating reports but to promote the maritime sector, lead and take action. In this regard, we are fortunate that there is ample local expertise to contribute towards setting up this common platform. The end objective remains that of creating wealth from our predominant natural resource – the sea.

Malta needs not spend efforts and funds to reinvent wheels. We can follow on the success of other European countries and adjust for the realities of our uniqueness.

Godwin Xerri is managing director, Combined Maritime Services, members of the Malta Shortsea Promotion Centre.

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